Temples as Microcosms


I have been posting a number of thoughts that I find relevant to the debate on the right understanding of Genesis 1. So by way of review, in my first post I affirmed 1) my love and admiration for my young earth creationism (henceforth YEC) brothers, 2) my commitment to the grammatico-historical method of interpretation, 3) my commitment to inerrancy. I also listed many brothers I respect who hold views different from the YEC. Finally I posted a quick definition of the view that I prefer, namely the Analogical Day View.

My second post was on analogies in general. I then did a series of posts that highlighted some parts of the text that could be read in a straight forward manner and yield times greater than 24 hrs. These included the time to drain the water on the third day,  the strange artifact of the land being too dry by the sixth day, the activities that had to fit on the 6th day, and the growth before the 7th day, which normally takes longer than 24 hrs. Also, while it doesn’t lend any interpretive weight, time tensions with good science do serve a a warning flag.

To transition from these negative observations to my more positive ones, I did a post that explored the importance of the intent of a passage. A passage may mention one thing without that thing being the point of the passage. Since exegesis is to discover the meaning of a passage, then pressing these other “things” to answer other questions may get us into interpretive difficulties. We must simply understand the point of the passage. If that doesn’t answer all our questions, then we need to be content with that. To follow the counsel of John Calvin, “When God closes His holy mouth, I will desist from inquiry.” So for my part, if the purpose of Genesis is not to set a date for creation, then I don’t want to force it to answer that question.

More positively now, I understand Genesis 1-2 to picture God as the great King who is building his temple. There is obviously a lot more than just this, but that is the part relevant to my understanding of the days. Genesis is heavy with connections to the tabernacle/temple. But to understand the significance of this, we should first spend some time understanding temples in general. From a cultural perspective it is useful to understand how temples were seen in the ancient Near East (henceforth ANE). What significance did the ancients understand their temples to carry? How does that fit with Israel?

ANE Temples as Microcosms

Temples in the ANE were seen as microcosms – miniature representations of the cosmos as a whole.

The heart of the ancient Near Eastern temple’s role in society was the special cosmological status it possessed. . . .No matter what cosmology a culture recognized, the temple was the meeting place of the different realms on the map. . . . We begin in Egypt, where every major temple claimed the status of having been erected contemporaneously with creation of earth. Each temple proclaimed to commemorate the ben-stone or the primordial mound. They portrayed their status as a link between realms. The temple at Heliopolis was called “Heaven of Egypt,” and Karnack was called “Heaven on Earth.” (Lori McCullough, “Dimensions of the Temple: The Temple Account in 1 Kings 5-9 Compared with Ancient Near East Temple Paradigms” p 15.)

Often they believed that their temple was on the plot of ground that was the first hill to protrude from earth’s watery beginning. Having such a privileged primordial status, it almost functioned as the gateway to the heavens. It is where the realms joined. As such, they were often decorated to signify the universe in small form.

There was usually three parts to the temples of the ANE. They were constructed in concentric circles of holiness. The outer court represented earth. So there was often a hillock present in the form of an elevated alter. There were images of beasts. There were representations of oceans. Moving into an inner court the scenery would change to represent more of the sky. Sun, moon, stars, clouds. There was a close connection with the visible heavens (the sky) and the invisible heavens beyond. The third and innermost room represented the invisible heavens. This was the abode of the gods. I won’t spend any more exploring ANE temples. This is only to say that this connection was part of the cultural environment of which Israel was a part.

Israel’s Temple as Microcosm

Israel, however was separate from the rest of the nations. God told her not to practice the customs of the other nations. So even though this was part of the culture, was it reasonable to expect Israel to follow? Usually, God would spell out how Israel was to be different. But being different did not mean they held nothing in common with their neighbors. After all, other peoples had temples, and so did Israel. Other people had sacrifices, and so did Israel. Other people had priests, so did Israel. The primary thing that made Israel different was that they worshiped the one true God. So much of Israel’s cultic system was to be understood as the pure worship of the true God. All others, no matter how similar, were perversions of Israel and her God.

So the question remains whether Israel also had a temple that served as a reflection of the cosmic temple. The only way to answer that is to look to scripture. If the relationship holds, then, in passages that detail the temple or tabernacle, we may expect to find hints of heaven and earth in the decoration or structure. We may expect to find other passages that allude to this relationship. And this is exactly what we do see.

Psalm 78:69 He built his sanctuary like the high heavens,
like the earth, which he has founded forever.

The tripartite structure is also seen in Israel’s temple. The outer court is earth, the dwelling of man. Here there were bulls, the altar (which had to be made of earth) called “the bosom of the earth,” and even a massive basin that was called the “sea.” (1 Kings 7:23-26). Much of the decoration was like nature:

1 Kings 7:18-36 Likewise he made pomegranates in two rows around the one latticework to cover the capital that was on the top of the pillar, and he did the same with the other capital. 19 Now the capitals that were on the tops of the pillars in the vestibule were of lily-work, four cubits. 20 The capitals were on the two pillars and also above the rounded projection which was beside the latticework. There were two hundred pomegranates in two rows all around, and so with the other capital. . . . 22 And on the tops of the pillars was lily-work. Thus the work of the pillars was finished.

23 Then he made the sea of cast metal. It was round, ten cubits from brim to brim, and five cubits high, and a line of thirty cubits measured its circumference. 24 Under its brim were gourds, for ten cubits, compassing the sea all around. The gourds were in two rows, cast with it when it was cast. . . . 29 On the frames, both above and below the lions and oxen, there were wreaths of beveled work. . . . The supports were cast with wreaths at the side of each. . . . 36 And on the surfaces of its stays and on its panels, he carved cherubim, lions, and palm trees, according to the space of each, with wreaths all around.

1 Kings 6:18 The cedar within the house was carved in the form of gourds and open flowers. All was cedar; no stone was seen.

The second section had the lamp stand  which had seven lights. That may have been indicative of the complete heavens, or it may have represented the 7 unique lights, the sun, the moon, and the five visible planets.

The very inner court, the holy of holies represented the invisible heavens – the dwelling place of God. There was the throne of God at the center. Guarding the throne were cherubim (1 Kings 6:23-28; cf. Rev 4:7-9). Angels were also woven into the fabric of the curtain. The ark was seen as God’s footstool. There is much more to explore, and we will touch on further aspects in coming posts, but this is sufficient to show the temple/creation connection.